Travel Tip: Exploring Sonoma's Pinot Stars!

Our guide to the California region's top tasting rooms for world-class Pinot
Travel Tip: Exploring Sonoma's Pinot Stars!
The gorgeous grounds of Arista Winery make for an ideal setting to sip Pinot Noir. (Alanna Hale)
May 23, 2016

Note: This is an excerpt from "Touring Sonoma Grape by Grape," which originally appeared in the June 15, 2016, issue of Wine Spectator.

Sonoma has become a hot destination for Pinot Noir, with the county boasting many of California's leading wineries for the grape. Spread over three regions, they draw upon a range of terroirs and bottle Pinots in a variety of styles.

The area is home to Pinot stars Marcassin and Kosta Browne, standard-bearers such as Dehlinger and Rochioli, and many more standouts, including Arista, Auteur, Donum, Merry Edwards, Patz & Hall and Siduri.

Pinot thrives in Russian River Valley, Carneros and Sonoma Coast. Known for its lush redwood trees and foggy weather, Russian River generally produces plump, rich and fruit-forward Pinots. Trees are rare along the windswept rolling hills of Carneros, where the wines are generally sleek, crisp and elegant.

Sonoma Coast bridges those two regions and is the largest and hardest AVA to define, a sprawling patchwork of microclimates and soil atypes. The terrain ranges from gentle slopes to isolated mountaintops, with the best vineyards at the highest elevations producing Pinots with an appealing earthiness and a dense core of tannins and acidity.

Many producers focus on specific regions. Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer of Marcassin harvest exclusively from their estate vineyards planted high in the Sonoma Coast, while winemaker James Hall makes Pinot from vineyards throughout the county and beyond. And while Pinot is planted through much of California, Sonoma has the most vines by far, nearly 12,500 acres. In fact, the variety recently surpassed Cabernet Sauvignon as the county's largest red grape crop.

Although Sonoma may be a focal point of Pinot Noir's new popularity, the region's history with the grape is somewhat spotty and dates back only a few decades. Of course, that's true of California and Pinot in general.

As early as the 1930s, there were Sonoma bottlings labeled Pinot Noir, but the wines were more likely blends based on Zinfandel, Petite Sirah or other grapes, a trend that continued into the 1970s with jug reds labeled Burgundy or Chianti. In the early 1950s, J.D. Zellerbach planted Pinot Noir at Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma Valley, and by 1968, Pinot was in place in Russian River Valley with growers such as Joe Rochioli and Joseph Swan.

But Pinot Noir is a finicky grape, in both vineyard and winery, so it wasn't until the 1990s that winemakers really found their footing. When the Pinot boom hit 10 years ago, Sonoma was well-positioned. That means you'll find Pinot Noir made throughout the county, although the largest concentration of wineries delivering top versions is in Russian River Valley.

WINERIES TO VISIT

Arista Winery
7015 Westside Road, Healdsburg
Telephone (707) 473-0606
Website www.aristawinery.com
Open Daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost Tastings $20-$160

Even if it weren't producing some of the top Pinot Noirs in Sonoma, Arista would be a destination for its distinctive tasting room. The cottage, with its steep roofline and surrounding Japanese garden, would look at home outside Tokyo. Founded by the McWilliams family in 2002, Arista produces nearly a dozen Pinots, as well as Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Gewürztraminer, and a varying selection is offered in three different tasting options. Savor a glass as you sit by the fireplace or wander among the streams, waterfalls and moss-covered stones of the garden.

Auteur Wines
373 First St. W., Sonoma
Telephone (707) 938-9211
Website www.auteurwines.com
Open Daily, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with appointments required Sunday to Friday
Cost Tastings $25

Winemaker Kenneth Juhasz has a way with Pinot Noir, producing some impressive wines for Donum and Pali, among others. Auteur is his own label, which he runs with his wife, Laura. He learned the winemaking ropes in Oregon before transplanting to Sonoma Valley in 2002. They make a range of Pinot Noirs from vineyards in Northern California and Willamette Valley, as well as Chardonnay. Auteur's tasting room is a cottage just off historic Sonoma Plaza, where guests sit at communal tables either by a fireplace or on the patio, depending on the weather, for tastings. It's a laid-back atmosphere that allows you to focus on the wines and perhaps meet a fellow Pinot lover.

DeLoach Vineyards
1791 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa
Telephone (707) 755-3300
Website www.deloachvineyards.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with appointments required Monday to Thursday
Cost Tastings $30-$100

Cecil DeLoach was a 1970s pioneer of Sonoma wine, and his winery is now thriving in the hands of the larger-than-life Jean-Charles Boisset, scion of the Burgundy giant. The winemaking style is strictly Californian: supple, fruit-forward wines. The portfolio includes nearly a dozen Pinot Noirs from Russian River and beyond, as well as a range of Chardonnays and Zinfandels. At the end of a long drive lined by vineyards lies the winery, whose manicured landscape includes a garden, outdoor art and a picnic area. DeLoach offers guests a gamut of experiences, from a tour of the vineyard to a cellar tasting amid costumed characters depicting the 17th-century French royal court.

Patz & Hall
21200 Eighth St. E., Sonoma
Telephone (707) 265-7700
Website www.patzhall.com
Open Thursday to Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., by appointment
Cost Tasting $30-$75

The tasting experience at Patz & Hall feels like home. Partners Donald Patz, Heather Patz, James Hall and Anne Moses have adorned the walls of their 8,000-square-foot "Sonoma House" with photos of their winegrowers, quite like portraits of family members. Nestled within a 10-acre vineyard on the outskirts of Sonoma, the house offers a contemporary and relaxed atmosphere. Tastings focus on educating visitors about the regions and growers behind the label's single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Guests can opt for a casual setting at the tasting bar, which offers four wines, or spring for a salon tasting, which includes six wines paired with imaginative noshes in a private setting.

Siduri Wines
981 Airway Court, Suites E & F, Santa Rosa
Telephone (707) 578-3882
Website www.siduri.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., by appointment
Cost Tastings free-$10

The atmosphere at Siduri might not wow the casual tourist, but it's heaven for Pinot nerds. At this no-frills warehouse in a Santa Rosa industrial park, it's all about winemaking. Stainless-steel tanks and oak barrels are all around, and you feel like you're hanging out with the cellar crew. Founders Adam and Dianna Lee sold the winery to Jackson Family in 2015, but Adam remains on board as winemaker, continuing to craft rich, full-bodied Pinots. Siduri harvests from all over California and Oregon, but Sonoma County remains the heart of the program, with 12 or more different Pinots, depending on the vintage. Siduri, by the way, takes its name from the Babylonian goddess of wine. The winery's sister label, Novy, emphasizes Zinfandel and Syrah.

Dining Out Wine Bars Red Wines United States California Sonoma Pinot Noir

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